I’m planning on being fashionably late for Niles’ party. But, I wonder, exactly how late is fashionable and not simply rude? Oh, why on earth am I worrying about this? I think crossly. After all, Niles is one of the rudest people I know. Highly amusing at times (usually at someone else’s expense), charming even, but just plain rude when you get right down to it. I used to blame his acerbic manner on the pressure of answering to Miranda, Editor-in-Chief, whose own particular brand of truculent offhand hauteur would make even the most ego-inflated celebrity appear an amateur in comparison. But no, as I have discovered, Niles’ style of blunt condescension is all his own. Nevertheless, he just happens to be the magazine’s Features Editor and I’m merely one of a number of lowly free-lancers who rely upon him for a living. Well, part of it anyway. So, I have to suck it up. And that’s why I’m making my way by train from the market town where I have recently taken up residence, all the way up to Shoreditch. Ok. It’s not the only reason.
You see, of late I’ve learnt that in a small town, bumping into an ex-lover (or indeed a one-night-stand) is all too likely. And it can be awkward. Disconcerting. Particularly when the last thing I’d said to them was something along the lines of “It was great… no it was… I’ll be in touch soon… I promise” and I haven’t. And I’ve avoided their calls. Then some morning, weeks later, when I’m innocently minding my own business browsing the ready-meal aisle or filling up with unleaded at the garage, there they are. Popping up from nowhere with a wounded expression. They. That makes it sound like an army. When in fact, since I’ve moved here, there’s only been two. Well, three actually if I include Harry the gardener, whom I’d hired to trim back my… no not my bush (because I know that’s what you’re thinking) but my clematis. Harry is only in his twenties and we all know that youthful enthusiasm in these matters doesn’t really count. So, new plan. Keep any casual hook-ups off-piste. Hence the real reason for attending Niles’ party. Anonymity.
Its when I’ve changed to the Northern Line and am busy counting off the five stops to Old Street that I first experience misgivings about my choice of outfit. I’d been led to believe, after a trawl through the fashion pages, that pastels are in and so, for once, had shed my Basic Black in favour of something more up to date. A pale green wrap top and a primrose yellow skirt that hits just above the knee. I think I look pretty good. A little banana-split meets pistachio ice-cream, but good. A quick scan of my fellow female travellers, all of whom are wearing variations on a black/navy/charcoal theme, now leaves me seriously in doubt. Ah, but maybe none of them are going to a party? I reason. That’ll be it.
Its not it. That’s immediately apparent when I step out on to the mezzanine level of Niles’ sleek warehouse apartment. If sugary pastels are the look this season, then why has nobody but me received the memo? I stand out. And not in a good way. I’m like a gaudy sun-flower, solitary and conspicuous in a field of blasé black tulips.
Talia, one of the regular models the magazine hires, looks me up and down. Wearing a black satin backless jumpsuit and with inky black hair, slanting cheekbones and vivid green eyes she’s undeniably beautiful but the pitying smirk on her face is not kind.
I glance about for Niles and glimpse him propped against a blonde-wood table wearing skinny jeans and a tight white T shirt. I wave, and he ambles over, taking in my outfit with a sardonic smile.
“Sally, I did tell you that moving to the country was a mistake”
“It’s not as bad as all that, is it?” I give the hem of my skirt an uneasy tug.
“Darling, it’s worse” he says and waltzes off to supervise the hired bar staff who are serving a selection of Artisan Gins in goblets the size of fish-bowls. Gin. Something else that’s in apparently. And no one seems to have a problem with that I think, watching those around me swirling/sniffing/hoovering it down with a smugly knowledgeable appreciation.
The evening is not going the way I’d planned. The stick of rosemary floating around in my vat of gin and botanical mixer keeps hitting me in the nose and the only male attention I’m receiving is from a young (far too young) guy with a soulful expression behind a pair of cool nerdy glasses. He has curly brown hair and a close-cropped beard and he’s called Freddie. And he’s persistent. Like a pesky wasp that keeps circling and then alights, attracted no doubt, to the yellow of my skirt. I don’t exactly swat him away but I’m not engaging. My answers are monosyllabic and I’m not really listening as he chats away about his life and his friends and his job in a marketing department somewhere.
Determined for the night not to be a total bust, I circulate. There are several people I know from the magazine but although they’re polite enough we don’t seem to be bonding. They’ve closed ranks and formed a clique and are not welcoming new members. Or at least they are not welcoming me. Can it really be my outfit or is it that they are so London-centric that anyone outside its magic girdle is considered beneath their notice? Either way, how shallow, I think loftily and have another gin.
Then I have another. But this time I extract the stick of rosemary before it has my eye out. Smart thinking, that. Only now I’m at a loss what to do with it. Niles’ apartment is too minimalistic to run to anything as pedestrian as a bin and so where am I supposed to dispose of the wretched thing? I notice that Talia, the uber-cool model, who’d looked me up and down so pointedly is just behind me and for a second I consider dropping it down her back-less jump suit but think better of it. However, her silver funnel-shaped designer handbag is hanging open from her left shoulder just begging to be tampered with. Covertly, I flick in the rosemary stick. It doesn’t make it all the way down but snags on something just in the lip. It looks like a damp centipede with its legs in the air. Fuck you, Talia, I think. And then turn hastily away as she becomes conscious of a presence a little too close to her.
“Sorry” I say, smiling brightly and side-step my way across to the other side of the room.
I take another slug of my drink and look up to find that Freddie’s come back for another go.
“What’s with you?” I ask “If you’ve got a thing for older women you’re wasting your time”
Except he isn’t. Because now I come to think of it I quite like his brown soulful eyes. They’re like a spaniel’s. And his beard looks soft and not scratchy. The type of beard that wouldn’t leave a red rash all over one’s face and neck and… oh, Christ it’s got to be the gin.
Suddenly there’s a commotion over by the wall-to-wall windows. Someone is screaming.
“There’s a bug in my bag!”
Niles and two bar-men hotfoot across the room where Talia is jumping up and down shaking the contents of her silver bag out on to the floor.
“Get it out! Get it out. Its huge” she yells frantically.
A snort of laughter escapes me. I do my best to stifle it, but I can’t help myself. She looks so funny, shrieking and getting all red in the face. Not exactly uber-cool now, is she? I think, feeling not in the least guilty. Another snort which I try and disguise as a hiccup. Freddie raises an eyebrow at me.
“Do you know something about this?” He asks with a grin
“Yes. But it’s not what you think… well, it is but…”
Another bubble of laughter, and then another, they’re coming quick and fast. And it must be infectious because now Freddie is laughing too.
“I don’t know what you’ve been up to” he says “But you may just have a problem. She’s heading our way”
Talia has spotted me and points an accusing finger “You!” She hisses “You were right beside me! Did you put that in my bag?”
The screaming has upped to a level that only dogs can hear as she charges towards me.
I swill down the last of my gin and turn to Freddie.
“Nice meeting you but I’m out of here”
He doesn’t hesitate but takes me by the hand and together we make a dash for the door.
1: I didn’t make it home that night. Or the night after.
2: I was right about the beard. Not scratchy at all.
3: I’ve binned the yellow skirt.
4: Niles is not best pleased with me.
TO BE CONTINUED